An unexpected nice gift, a smile from someone you love, the finishing line of a marathon, even the return of the favorite series to TV – everybody knows the sudden rush of joy. Somehow, we are all – supposedly – seeking what will make us happy. Early psychologists thought that the search for pleasure (along with the avoidance of pain) was a prime mover of living things. Philosophy and religion, too, are very much about happiness, whether it is how to find it in this world or the next, or how to live in a world that does not really offer it. Societies are built on making their members think that acting in accordance to their rules will be best (otherwise, they could not last for long); the consumer economy is founded on the idea that human beings always want more – and if they don’t, they have to be made to want it, not least by the promise that it will make them happy. So, “human beings want to be happy” is one of the few certainties – maybe the only certainty – in social life, where the only other statement close to a law of nature is that “it depends.”
Industrialized countries seem to have found the way to happiness in the affluence gained through economic growth. And they aim to keep that standard of living. When sustainability became the buzzword with the United Nation’s “Rio Conference” in 1992, then-president George Bush Sr. simply stated that the American way of life was not up for negotiation. All in all, not much seems to have changed since then. Developing countries – hence their very moniker – are seen as needing to follow the same path of development; and of course, poor people would love to live like affluent ones. Everyone would enjoy living like you see on TV (at least the good sides of it).
Unfortunately, discussions on happiness appear to exist in a vacuum. Sure, there are relationships with other people; there is the issue of how much money you need, of whether materialism is an integral part of the drive towards happiness or a stumbling stone. And yet, a happy life hardly seems to exist in and as part of this world. Advice on how to lead happier lives, even when it includes admonishments to connect with your friends or even to be of service in the world, takes the “every man an island unto himself”-view. It is all you yourself who has to do something, who has all the responsibility for his/her happiness, who has to work for independence from places, people, let alone income other than that which flows in passively. We do not seem to live in this world, as part of it.
Ecology, then, seems to be the absolute spoil-sport. Underlying all present development(s) are predictions of a peak in worldwide oil extraction, prognoses of global climate change, and studies on ecological thresholds that humanity is running up against. All of those, by themselves, could change the world utterly – and they may be coming of effect together, in a world with a human population that is also still growing. Even if one disregards peak oil or climate change, the present human population could not all lead American or European lifestyles. According to the research by Rees & Wackernagel (1996), that would require the resources of some 3 planets Earth.
The trouble is that, with those two perspectives, there seem to be only two choices: Either we go on with economic growth which has brought affluence, hope that the problems it may be bringing will not become too bad, and enjoy the good life that it brings. There are many predictions for doom-and-gloom that will ensue if we don’t change our ways. We have even seen that the exclusive focus on economic growth does not necessarily raise everyone’s incomes; and rising incomes, after a certain level, bring basically no increase in happiness. Growth alone does not necessarily bring the easy living it is supposedly good for, either. (Just consider the case of the working poor, people who do hold jobs but do not make enough money for much more than survival, for example.) Still, business-as-usual offers both hope for affluence and the comfortable familiarity of the known. In the “Great Recession,” that is obvious in how many initiatives and hopes are pinned on getting back to how things were before, even though wages had steadily been falling and the consumption was based on debt.
The alternative is that we try to change our cultures, our lives, in ways making them fit in with the ecological functioning of the world. What little seems to be certain about the changes necessary in order to do so, however, is that it means sacrificing for the future, having to give up the pleasures and amenities of modern life. Only too much has been written about why we had better want to change, even if it means sacrifice. Only too often, these calls have been quasi-religious. It sounds outright medieval: pay for others to save your and other’s souls (or, in this case, endangered species and impoverished peoples), do penance, mend your ways and give up your worldly pleasures. Great motivation.
PR’s first principle is that you have to make your constituents rally around you, and it seems used in both camps, a lot. The dominant idea that there is only an either-or makes us believe that there is only either extreme change that is as threatening to life satisfaction as the problems it is meant to address, or comfortable business-as-usual with some green veneer added to make us feel good while the underlying problems get solved by the march of progress – or not.
The new radical drive has to be in the middle: connecting an understanding of the earth system that shapes our planetary home and the psychology that shapes our own behavior; seeking to understand and use the connections between our lives, our place in the world, and our happiness. Talking about the connections between things had become all too fashionable, first among hippies, then (limited to the economy) among neoliberals arguing for globalization, and most recently, possibly, looking like one had been too much into the movie “Avatar.” Nonetheless, there naturally is an ecology – a network of relationships – of life on Earth, including us, our livelihoods, and our happiness. Working against it is possible to quite some degree (we will talk about that later), but an idea that is, in the long term, similar to wanting to fly without considering aerodynamics. The opposite also holds true: learning how we are connected to the wider world, how our happiness relates to the flourishing of life, may show us ways to sustain life, and to do so while – or even by – pursuing happiness.